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Bill would ensure pay for Coast Guard in government shutdown

Hats and shoulder boards lay on the ground as 224 newly minted officers leave after the U.S. Coast Guard Academy's 132nd Commencement Ceremony in New London.
Petty Officer 2nd Class Lanola Stone
U.S. Coast Guard Academy
Hats and shoulder boards lay on the ground as 224 newly minted officers leave after the U.S. Coast Guard Academy's 132nd Commencement Ceremony in New London.

As lawmakers continue to try to avoid a government shutdown on Sunday, members of both parties, including Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., are working to make sure members of the military — and, in particular, the U.S. Coast Guard — are not left out.

Active duty military and some federal civilian employees are required to work during a government shutdown. And unless Congress intervenes, they would work this time without getting a paycheck and only receive back pay once the government is funded.

But at times in the past, the Coast Guard has been excluded from the same protections as the rest of the military branches because they fall under different government agencies.

If a shutdown occurs on Sunday, service members who still need to report for duty could go days — or even weeks — without income.

Consensus to keep the government open in the short term is looking increasingly unlikely, and Congress has little time to address it before funding runs out by the end of Saturday. House Republicans on Friday failed to pass their own bill to fund the government through Oct. 31 after nearly two dozen GOP members opposed it.

Meanwhile, the Senate looks poised to pass a bipartisan proposal to keep things running through mid-November. But it is unclear if Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., would bring it up for a vote in the House.

A government shutdown would have a ripple effect across Connecticut and the U.S., ranging from furloughs in the federal workforce to potential reductions in services related to nutrition assistance, education and food safety.

And it could have an “outsized” effect in Connecticut given that the state has a larger proportion of veterans and defense production, according to Blumenthal. The state is home to major defense contractors working with the U.S. military as well as the Naval Submarine Base New London and Coast Guard Academy.

Unlike the rest of the military branches that report to the U.S. Department of Defense, the Coast Guard falls under the purview of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

Those differences played out in the last government shutdown, which spanned over a month from late December 2018 to early January 2019. Since Congress passed a defense budget at the time, most of the military was paid during the shutdown. But with no funding for Homeland Security, the Coast Guard went without pay.

For many Coast Guard families who live paycheck to paycheck, they need income to cover their rent, mortgages, food, car payments and child care. Because they went without pay a few years ago, many relied on food pantries and other donations.

But since none of the 12 appropriations bills to fund government agencies have fully passed Congress this time, it is likely all of the military would forgo paychecks while working.

Before previous shutdowns, Congress has passed provisions to ensure that the military still gets paid. There are various bills from lawmakers in both parties to do that — and to specifically include the Coast Guard — but their status is unclear heading into the shutdown deadline. Some Republicans tried last week to pass such legislation, but Democrats blocked it, arguing they would rather focus on efforts to avoid a shutdown.

Bipartisan legislation, called the Pay Our Coast Guard Act, would seek to ensure there is parity within the military. Blumenthal is co-sponsoring a bill recently introduced that requires Coast Guard service members to get the same protections and pay as other military branches during and after a shutdown. The bill has the backing of Senate Commerce Committee Chairwoman Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., and Ranking Member Ted Cruz, R-Texas.

Connecticut has more than 6,000 members on active duty, according to June data compiled by the Defense Manpower Data Center, which does not include numbers on those in the Army. Of those, 719 are serving on active duty in the Coast Guard. Another 162 are in the Coast Guard Reserve.
“When we’re talking about our military, our FBI, our Customs and Border Patrol, the pay will be potentially long after they actually serve and do the work, and that has really deep and devastating human consequences,” Blumenthal told reporters Friday on a call.

“My hope is this will give our Coast Guard the certainty and security knowing they’re going to be treated the same way as other services by giving them back pay in exactly the same way,” Blumenthal said later in an interview. “I agree we should not be delaying pay [for the military]. That’s a really important truth here.”

While lawmakers in Connecticut raised the importance of paying the military during a shutdown, some shared concerns about deciding which federal employees should get that carveout. They are instead currently focused on passing the short-term bill known as a continuing resolution to avoid halting the pay of any federal worker.

“It’s really difficult to decide which workers should get paid during a shutdown and which shouldn’t,” Murphy told reporters on Friday, echoing a similar point made this week by Rep. Jim Himes, D-4th District. “That would obviously be very important, but it’s hard to decide that our military service members should be paid but our border patrol agents shouldn’t be paid.”

“It doesn’t make a lot of sense to waste time trying to make sure that certain employees get paid when you could easily just move forward on the bipartisan bill that’s going to pass the Senate to keep the government open and operating,” he added.

Murphy and Blumenthal also highlighted another class of workers whose pay would be unprotected during a shutdown: government contractors.

There is a statute requiring all federal employees to get back pay when they return to work after a shutdown. But contractors are excluded. The ones most at risk of a pay stoppage are lower-paid contractors who work in food and cleaning services for federal agencies — many who cannot afford to keep working without a paycheck.

Some may still get paid throughout a shutdown depending on how the federal contract and funding for it is structured. Otherwise, Murphy noted that getting compensated is at the discretion of their employer.

“In Connecticut, we have a lot of federal contractors, a lot of military contractors whose companies are not going to be reimbursed during the shutdown, and many of those companies will choose not to provide back pay to their employees,” Murphy said.

Major defense contractors in Connecticut like Electric Boat, Sikorsky and Pratt & Whitney have billions of dollars worth in federal contracts with military branches like the Navy and Air Force. It is not immediately clear, however, if or how those contracts and their workforce would be affected by a shutdown.

But Murphy highlighted the uncertainty for Connecticut’s defense industry, including the Naval Submarine Base New London in Groton.

“It’s important to note, especially in a state … that relies greatly on the defense industrial base, a state that has a lot of contractors in and around southeastern Connecticut, the federal employees will be made whole,” Murphy said. “But there’s no guarantee that people who are working for contractors, on the sub base for instance, are going to get paid at the end of this shutdown.”

The Connecticut Mirror/Connecticut Public Radio federal policy reporter position is made possible, in part, by funding from the Robert and Margaret Patricelli Family Foundation and Engage CT.

This story was originally published by the Connecticut Mirror.

Lisa Hagen is CT Public and CT Mirror’s shared Federal Policy Reporter. Based in Washington, D.C., she focuses on the impact of federal policy in Connecticut and covers the state’s congressional delegation. Lisa previously covered national politics and campaigns for U.S. News & World Report, The Hill and National Journal’s Hotline.

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